Robbery Under Arms/Chapter 30
We made up our minds to start by Saturday's coach. It left at night and travelled nigh a hundred miles by the same hour next morning. It's more convenient for getting away than the morning. A chap has time for doing all kinds of things just as he would like; besides, a quieter time to slope than just after breakfast. The Turon daily mail was well horsed and well driven. Nightwork though it was, and the roads dangerous in places, the five big double-reflector lamps, one high up over the top of the coach in the middle with two pair more at the side, made everything plain. We Cornstalks never thought of more than the regular pair of lamps, pretty low down, too, before the Yankee came and showed us what cross-country coaching was. We never knew before. My word, they taught us a trick or two. All about riding came natural, but a heap of dodges about harness we never so much as heard of till they came to the country with the gold rush.
We'd made all our bits of preparations, and thought nothing stood in the way of a start next evening. This was Friday. Jim hadn't sold his bits of traps, because he didn't want it to be known he wasn't coming back. He left word with a friend he could trust, though, to have 'em all auctioned and the goodwill of his cottage, and to send the money after him. My share and his in the claim went to Arizona Bill and his mate. We had no call to be ashamed of the money that stood to our credit in the bank. That we intended to draw out, and take with us in an order or a draft, or something, to Melbourne. Jeanie had her boxes packed, and was so wild with looking forward to seeing St. Kilda beach again that she could hardly sleep or eat as the time drew near.
Friday night came; everything had been settled. It was the last night we should either of us spend at the Turon for many a day—perhaps never. I walked up and down the streets, smoking, and thinking it all over. The idea of bed was ridiculous. How wonderful it all seemed! After what we had gone through and the state we were in less than a year ago, to think that we were within so little of being clear away and safe for ever in another country, with as much as would keep us comfortable for life. I could see Gracey, Aileen, and Jeanie, all so peaceful and loving together, with poor old mother, who had lost her old trick of listening and trembling whenever she heard a strange step or the tread of a horse. What a glorious state of things it would be! A deal of it was owing to the gold. This wonderful gold! But for it we shouldn't have had such a chance in a hundred years. I was that restless I couldn't settle, when I thought, all of a sudden, as I walked up and down, that I had promised to go and say good-bye to Kate Mullockson, at the Prospectors' Arms, the night before we started. I thought for a moment whether it would be safer to let it alone. I had a strange, unwilling kind of feeling about going there again; but at last, half not knowing what else to do, and half not caring to make an enemy of Kate, if I could help it, I walked up.
It was latish. She was standing near the bar, talking to half-a-dozen people at once, as usual; but I saw she noticed me at once. She quickly drew off a bit from them all; said it was near shutting-up time, and, after a while, passed through the bar into the little parlour where I was sitting down. It was just midnight. The night was half over before I thought of coming in. So when she came in and seated herself near me on the sofa I heard the clock strike twelve, and most of the men who were walking about the hall began to clear out.
Somehow, when you've been living at a place for a goodish while, and done well there, and had friends as has stuck by you, as we had at the Turon, you feel sorry to leave it. What you've done you're sure of, no matter how it mayn't suit you in some ways, nor how much better you expect to be off where you are going to. You had that and had the good of it. What the coming time may bring you can't reckon on. All kinds of cross luck and accidents may happen. What's the use of money to a man if he smashes his hip and has to walk with a crutch all his days? I've seen a miner with a thousand a month coming in, but he'd been crushed pretty near to death with a fall of earth, and about half of him was dead. What's a good dinner to a man that his doctor only allows him one slice of meat, a bit of bread, and some toast and water? I've seen chaps like them, and I'd sooner a deal be the poorest splitter, slogging away with a heavy maul, and able, mind you, to swing it like a man, than one of those broken-down screws. We'd had a good time there, Jim and I. We always had a kind spot in our hearts for Turon and the diggings afterwards. Hard work, high pay, good friends that would stick to a man back and edge, and a safe country to lie in plant in as ever was seen. We was both middlin' sorry, in a manner of speaking, to clear out. Not as Jim said much about it on account of Jeanie; but he thought it all the same.
Well, of course, Kate and I got talkin' and talkin', first about the diggings, and then about other things, till we got to old times in Melbourne, and she began to look miserable and miserabler whenever she spoke about marrying the old man, and wished she'd drownded herself first. She made me take a whisky—a stiffish one that she mixed herself—for a parting glass, and I felt it took a bit of effect upon me. I'd been having my whack during the day. I wasn't no ways drunk; but I must have been touched more or less, because I felt myself to be so sober.
`You're going at last, Dick,' says she; `and I suppose we shan't meet again in a hurry. It was something to have a look at you now and then. It reminded me of the happy old times at St. Kilda.'
`Oh, come, Kate,' I said, `it isn't quite so bad as all that. Besides, we'll be back again in February, as like as not. We're not going for ever.'
`Are you telling me the truth, Richard Marston?' says she, standing up and fixing her eyes full on me—fine eyes they were, too, in their way; `or are you trying another deceit, to throw me off the scent and get rid of me? Why should you ever want to see my face after you leave?'
`A friendly face is always pleasant. Anyhow, Kate, yours is, though you did play me a sharpish trick once, and didn't stick to me like some women might have done.'
`Tell me this,' she said, leaning forward, and putting one hand on my shoulder, while she seemed to look through the very soul of me—her face grew deadly pale, and her lips trembled, as I'd seen them do once before when she was regular beyond herself—`will you take me with you when you go for good and all? I'm ready to follow you round the world. Don't be afraid of my temper. No woman that ever lived ever did more for the man she loved than I'll do for you. If Jeanie's good to Jim—and you know she is—I'll be twice the woman to you, or I'll die for it. Don't speak!' she went on; `I know I threw you over once. I was mad with rage and shame. You know I had cause, hadn't I, Dick? You know I had. To spite you, I threw away my own life then; now it's a misery and a torment to me every day I live. I can bear it no longer, I tell you. It's killing me—killing me day by day. Only say the word, and I'll join you in Melbourne within the week—to be yours, and yours only, as long as I live.'
I didn't think there was that much of the loving nature about her. She used to vex me by being hard and uncertain when we were courting. I knew then she cared about me, and I hadn't a thought about any other woman. Now when I didn't ask her to bother herself about me, and only to let me alone and go her own way, she must turn the tables on me, and want to ruin the pair of us slap over again.
She'd thrown her arms round my neck and was sobbing on my shoulder when she finished. I took her over to the sofa, and made her sit down by the side of me.
`Kate,' I said, `this won't do. There's neither rhyme nor reason about it. I'm as fond of you as ever I was, but you must know well enough if you make a bolt of it now there'll be no end of a bobbery, and everybody's thoughts will be turned our way. We'll be clean bowled—the lot of us. Jim and I will be jugged. You and Jeanie will be left to the mercy of the world, worse off by a precious sight than ever you were in your lives. Now, if you look at it, what's the good of spoiling the whole jimbang for a fancy notion about me? You and I are safe to be first-rate friends always, but it will be the ruin of both of us if we're fools enough to want to be more. You're living here like a regular queen. You've got a good husband, that's proud of you and gives you everything you can think of. You took him yourself, and you're bound to stick to him. Besides, think of poor Jeanie and Jim. You'll spoil all their happiness; and, more than all—don't make any mistake—you know what Jeanie thinks of a woman who leaves her husband for another man.'
If you let a woman have a regular good cry and talk herself out, you can mostly bring her round in the end. So after a bit Kate grew more reasonable. That bit about Jeanie fetched her too. She knew her own sister would turn against her—not harsh like, but she'd never be the same to her again as long as she lived.
The lamp had been put out in the big hall. There was only one in this parlour, and it wasn't over bright. I talked away, and last of all she came round to my way of thinking; at any rate not to want to clear off from the old man now, but to wait till I came back, or till I wrote to her.
`You are right, Dick,' she said at last, `and you show your sense in talking the way you have; though, if you loved as I do, you could not do it. But, once more, there's no other woman that you're fonder of than me? It isn't that that makes you so good? Dick Marston good!' and here she laughed bitterly. `If I thought that I should go mad.'
What was I to do? I could not tell her that I loved Gracey Storefield ten times as much as I'd ever cheated myself into thinking I cared about her. So I swore that I cared more for her than any woman in the whole world, and always had done so.
This steadied her. We parted good friends, and she promised to keep quiet and try and make the best of things. She turned up the lamp to show me the way out, though the outer door of the hall was left open night and day. It was a way we had at the Turon; no one troubled themselves to be particular about such trifles as furniture and so on. There was very little small robbery there; it was not worth while. All petty stealers were most severely punished into the bargain.
As I stood up to say good-bye a small note dropped out of my breast-pocket. It had shifted somehow. Kate always had an eye like a hawk. With one spring she pounced upon it, and before I could interfere opened and read it! It was Gracey Storefield's. She stood for one moment and glared in my face. I thought she had gone mad. Then she threw the bit of paper down and trampled upon it, over and over again.
`So, Dick Marston,' she cried out hoarsely, her very voice changed, `you have tricked me a second time! Your own Gracey! your own Gracey! and this, by the date, at the very time you were letting me persuade myself, like a fool, like an idiot that I was, that you still care for me! You have put the cap to your villainy now. And, as God made me, you shall have cause—good cause—to fear the woman you have once betrayed and twice scorned. Look to yourself.'
She gazed at me for a moment with a face from which every trace of expression had vanished, except that of the most devilish fury and spite—the face of an evil spirit more than of a woman; and then she walked slowly away. I couldn't help pitying her, though I cursed my own folly, as I had done a thousand times, that I had ever turned my head or spoken a word to her when first she crossed my path. I got into the street somehow; I hardly knew what to think or to do. That danger was close at our heels I didn't doubt for a moment. Everything seemed changed in a minute. What was going to happen? Was I the same Dick Marston that had been strolling up Main Street a couple of hours ago? All but off by the to-morrow evening's coach, and with all the world before me, a good round sum in the bank; best part of a year's hard, honest work it was the price of, too.
Then all kinds of thoughts came into my head. Would Kate, when her burst of rage was over, go in for revenge in cold blood? She could hardly strike me without at the same time hurting Jeanie through Jim. Should I trust her? Would she come right, kiss, and make friends, and call herself a madwoman—a reckless fool—as she'd often done before? No; she was in bitter earnest this time. It did not pay to be slack in making off. Once we had been caught napping, and once was enough.
The first thing to do was to warn Jim—poor old Jim, snoring away, most like, and dreaming of taking the box-seat for himself and Jeanie at the agent's next morning. It seemed cruel to wake him, but it would have been crueller not to do so.
I walked up the narrow track that led up to the little gully with the moon shining down upon the white quartz rock. The pathway wound through a `blow' of it. I threw a pebble at the door and waited till Jim came out.
`Who's there? Oh! it's you, old man, is it? It's rather late for a call; but if you've come to spend the evening I'll get up, and we'll have a smoke, anyhow.'
`You dress yourself, Jim,' I said, `as quick as you can. Put on your hat and come with me; there's something up.'
`My God!' says Jim, `what is it? I'm a rank coward now I've got Jeanie. Don't go and tell me we've got to cut and run again.'
`Something like it,' I said. `If it hasn't come to that yet, it's not far off.'
We walked up the gully together. Jim lit his pipe while I told him shortly what had happened to me with Kate.
`May the devil fly away with her!' said Jim savagely, `for a bad-minded, bad-hearted jade; and then he'd wish he'd left her where she was. She'd be no chop-down there even. I think sometimes she can't be Jeanie's sister at all. They must have changed her, and mothered the wrong child on the old woman. My word! but it's no laughing matter. What's to be done?'
`There's no going away by the coach to-morrow, I'm afraid. She's just the woman to tear straight up the camp and let it all out before her temper cooled. It would take a week to do that. The sergeant or Sir Ferdinand knows all about it now. They'll lose no time, you may be certain.'
`And must I leave without saying good-night to Jeanie?' says Jim. `No, by ——! If I have half-a-dozen bullets through me, I'll go back and hold her in my arms once more before I'm hunted off and through the country like a wild dog once more. If that infernal Kate has given us away, by George, I could go and kill her with my own hand! The cruel, murdering, selfish brute, I believe she'd poison her mother for a ten-pound note!'
`No use swearing at Kate, Jim,' I said; `that won't mend matters. It's not the first time by a thousand that I've wished I'd never set eyes on her; but if I'd never seen her that day on St. Kilda beach you'd never known Jeanie. So there's evens as well as odds. The thing is, what are we to do now?'
`Dashed if I know. I feel stupid about tackling the bush again; and what can I do with Jeanie? I wish I was dead. I've half a mind to go and shoot that brute of a woman and then myself. But then, poor Jeanie! poor little Jeanie! I can't stand it, Dick; I shall go mad!'
I thought Jim was going to break out crying just as he used when he was a boy. His heart was a big soft one; and though he could face anything in the way of work or fighting that a man dare do, and do two men's share very like, yet his tears, mother said, laid very near his eyes, and till he was a grown man they used to pump up on all sorts of occasions.
`Come, be a man, Jim,' I said, `we've got to look the thing in the face; there's no two ways about it. I shall go to Arizona Bill's claim and see what he says. Anyhow I'll leave word with him what to do when we're gone. I'd advise you not to try to see Jeanie; but if you will you must, I suppose. Good-bye, old man. I shall make my way over to Jonathan's, borrow a horse from him, and make tracks for the Hollow as soon as I can. You'd better leave Jeanie here and do the same.'
Jim groaned, but said nothing. He wrung my hands till the bones seemed to crack, and walked away without a word. We knew it was a chance whether we should meet again.
I walked on pretty quick till I came to the flat where Arizona Bill and his mates had their sluicing claim. There were six of them altogether, tall wiry men all of them; they'd mostly been hunters and trappers in the Rocky Mountains before the gold was struck at Suttor's Mill, in the Sacramento Valley. They had been digging in '49 in California, but had come over when they heard from an old mate of a placer diggings at Turon, richer than anything they had ever tried in America.
This camp was half a mile from ours, and there was a bit of broken ground between, so that I thought I was safe in having a word with them before I cleared for Barnes's place, though I took care not to go near our own camp hut. I walked over, and was making straight for the smallest hut, when a rough voice hailed me.
`Hello! stranger, ye came darned near going to h—l with your boots on. What did yer want agin that thar cabin?'
I saw then that in my hurry I had gone stumbling against a small hut where they generally put their gold when the party had been washing up and had more than was safe to start from camp with. In this they always put a grizzled old hunter, about whom the yarn was that he never went to sleep, and could shoot anything a mile off. It was thought a very unlikely thing that any gold he watched would ever go crooked. Most people considered him a deal safer caretaker than the escort.
`Oh! it's you, is it?' drawled Sacramento Joe. `Why, what's doin' at yer old camp?'
`What about?' said I.
`Wal, Bill and I seen three or four half-baked vigilantes that call themselves police; they was a setting round the hut and looked as if they was awaiting for somebody.'
`Tell Bill I want him, Joe,' I said.
`Can't leave guard nohow,' says the true grit old hunter, pointing to his revolver, and dodging up and down with his lame leg, a crooked arm, and a seam in his face like a terrible wound there some time or other. `I darsn't leave guard. You'll find him in that centre tent, with the red flag on it.'
I lifted the canvas flap of the door and went in. Bill raised himself in the bed and looked at me quite coolly.
`I was to your location a while since,' he said. `Met some friends of yours there too. I didn't cotton to 'em muchly. Something has eventuated. Is that so?'
`Yes. I want your help.' I told him shortly all I could tell him in the time.
He listened quietly, and made no remark for a time.
`So ye hev' bin a road agent. You and Jim, that darned innocent old cuss, robbing mails and cattle ranches. It is a real scoop up for me, you bet. I'd heern of bush-ranging in Australia, but I never reckoned on their bein' men like you and Jim. So the muchacha went back on yer—snakes alive! I kinder expected it. I reckon you're bound to git.'
`Yes, Bill, sharp's the word. I want you to draw my money and Jim's out of the bank; it's all in my name. There's the deposit receipt. I'll back it over to you. You give Jeanie what she wants, and send the rest when I tell you. Will you do that for me, Bill? I've always been on the square with you and your mates.'
`You hev', boy, that I'll not deny, and I'll corral the dollars for you. It's an all-fired muss that men like you and Jim should have a black mark agin your record. A spry hunter Jim would have made. I'd laid out to have had him to Arizona yet—and you're a going to dust out right away, you say?'
`I'm off now. Jim's waited too long, I expect. One other thing; let Mr. Haughton, across the creek, have this before daylight.'
`What, the Honourable!!! Lawful heart! Wal, I hope ye may strike a better trail yet. Yer young, you and Jim, poor old Jim. Hold on. Hev' ye nary shootin' iron?'
`No time,' I said. `I haven't been to the camp.'
`Go slow, then. Wait here; you'll want suthin, may be, on the peraira. If ye do, boy! Jim made good shootin' with this, ye mind. Take it and welcome; it'll mind ye of old Arizona Bill.'
He handed me a beautifully finished little repeating rifle, hardly heavier than a navy revolver, and a small bag of cartridges.
`Thar, that'll be company for ye, in case ye hev to draw a bead on the—any one—just temp'ry like. Our horses is hobbled in Bates's clearing. Take my old sorrel if ye can catch him.' He stopped for a second and put his hand in a listening fashion. His hunter's ear was quicker than mine. `Thar's a war party on the trail, I reckon. It's a roughish crossing at Slatey Bar,' and he pointed towards the river, which we could plainly hear rushing over a rocky bed. We shook hands, and as I turned down the steep river bank I saw him walk slowly into his tent and close the canvas after him.
The line he pointed to was the one I fixed in my own mind to take long before our talk was over. The Turon, always steep-banked, rocky in places, ran here under an awful high bluff of slate rock. The rushing water in its narrow channel had worn away the rock a good deal, and left ledges or bars under which a deal of gold had been found. Easy enough to cross here on a kind of natural ford. We had many a time walked over on Sundays and holidays for a little kangaroo-shooting now and then. It was here Jim one day, when we were all together for a ramble, surprised the Americans by his shooting with the little Ballard rifle.
As I crossed there was just moon enough to show the deep pools and the hurrying, tearing waters of the wild river, foaming betwixt the big boulders and jags of rock which the bar was strewed with. In front the bank rose 300 feet like the roof of a house, with great overhanging crags of slate rock, and a narrow track in and out between. If I had light enough to find this and get to the top—the country was terribly rough for a few miles, with the darkness coming on—I should be pretty well out of reach by daylight.
I had just struck the track when I heard voices and a horse's tramp on the other side of the river. They seemed not to be sure whether I'd crossed or not, and were tracking up and down on each side of the bar. I breasted the hill track faster than I had done for many a day, and when I got to the top stopped to listen, but could hear nothing. The moon had dropped suddenly; the forest was as black as pitch. You couldn't see your hand before you.
I knew that I was safe now, if a hundred men were at my heels, till daybreak at any rate. I had the two sides of the gully to guide me. I could manage to make to the farm where the sorrel was at grass with a lot of other diggers' horses. If I could get a saddle and catch the old horse I could put many a mile between me and them before sundown. I stood still when I reached the top of the bluff, partly to get breath and partly to take a last look at old Turon.
Below lay the goldfield clearly marked out by hundreds of camp-fires that were still red and showed bright in the darkened sky. The course of the river was marked by them, in and out, as most of the shallow diggings had followed the river flats. Far back the fires glowed against the black forest, and just before the moon fell I could catch the shine of the water in the deeper reaches of the river.
It was the very picture of what I'd read about an army in camp—lines of tents and a crowd of men all spread out over a bit of land hardly big enough for a flock of sheep. Now and then a dog would bark—now a revolver would go off. It was never quiet on Turon diggings, day or night.
Well, there they all were, tents and diggers, claims and windlasses, pumps and water-wheels. I had been happy enough there, God knows; and perhaps I was looking at it all for the last time. As I turned and made down the hill into the black forest that spread below me like the sea, I felt as if I was leaving everything that was any good in life behind with the Turon lights, and being hunted once more, in spite of myself, into a desert of darkness and despair.